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Synergy and the Bioeconomics of Complexity

Part of the Springer Proceedings in Complexity book series (SPCOM)

Abstract

Living systems are distinctive in that they are subject to basic economic criteria, and to economic constraints. They are obedient to the calculus of economic costs and benefits in any given environmental context. This applies to all biological traits, including complexity (which can be defined and measured in both structural and functional terms). A major theoretical challenge, therefore, is to account for the “progressive” evolution of complex living systems over time, from the origins of life itself to “superorganisms” like leaf cutter ants and humankind. Why has complexity evolved? A causal theory, called the Synergism Hypothesis, was first proposed by this author in the 1980s and was independently proposed by John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry in the 1990s. This theory is only now emerging from the shadows as a major paradigm shift is occurring in evolutionary biology away from a reductionist, individualistic, gene-centered model to a multi-level, systems perspective. The Synergism Hypothesis is, in effect, an economic (or bioeconomic) theory of complexity. It is focused on the costs and benefits of complexity, and the unique creative power of functional synergy in the natural world. The theory proposes that the overall trajectory of the evolutionary process over the past 3.8 billion years or so has been shaped by synergies of various kinds. The synergies produced by cooperation among various elements, genes, parts, or individuals may create interdependent “units” of adaptation and evolutionary change that are favored in a dynamic that Maynard Smith termed Synergistic Selection (in effect, a sub-category of natural selection). Some methodological issues will also be discussed, and some examples will be provided.

Keywords

  • Synergistic Selection
  • Synergy Hypothesis
  • Leaf-cutting Ants
  • Functional Synergy
  • Torday

These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Though he is antagonistic to traditional neo-Darwinism, Torday’s theory tacitly acknowledges the role of differential selection (natural selection) in evolution. His scenario posits the development of a set of highly synergistic physiological components that combined to produce homeostasis, which, he claims, has driven further physiological developments over time. But phrases like “selection advantage” and “positive selection” sneak into his discussion at various points. For example, he describes the over-engineering of lung capacity in land animals as being, very likely, the result of evolution “positively selecting for those organisms with optimal exchange capacity.” It’s natural selection in deep disguise.

    A comment is also in order here regarding the mechanical engineer Bejan’s (2016) much-hyped new theory of “everything” (his term) in physics, which he calls the “constructal law of design in nature.” Bejan’s claim is that there is a universal, inherent tendency for any “flow system” in nature – from rivers to living systems – to evolve over time in such a way as to provide “ever greater access to the currents that flow through it.” Take, for example, the energy throughputs in living organisms. To Bejan, the increases in energy flows over the course of biological evolution accord with his physical law. It resembles similar physical trends. To a biologist, however, any increases in energy flows over time have had a strictly functional basis. An increase in efficiency, or in energy throughputs, is the end-product of natural selection – differential survival and reproduction among naturally occurring variations in energy capture/utilization capacities. Bejan’s theory only accounts for the “winners”. But, in reality, this is an artifact of the functional advantages involved and not of some exogenous “law”. Indeed, Bejan’s “flow” model cannot predict major functional variations in living systems. Consider water consumption. Filter feeders, like sponges, can process huge quantities of water in the course of a day, typically more than their own weight every few seconds. A human consumes only a small fraction of that amount, by weight. Moreover, the actual water throughput for any individual human is very much context-dependent. A marathon runner on a hot day will consume much more water (perhaps two quarts per hour) than a sedentary person of the same weight who is watching TV in an air-conditioned living room. It is the same with energy throughputs. Indeed, various specialized cells in our bodies consume vastly different amounts of energy (see below).

  2. 2.

    For example, Torday (2016) affirms that economic criteria have been operative even in the basic physiological evolution of living systems. One illustration: “…[I]t has been observed that the genome decreased by about 80%–90% after the Cambrian Extinction. The advent of endothermy may explain this phenomenon because ectotherms require complex enzymatic regulatory mechanisms in order to accommodate variable atmospheric temperatures, whereas the uniform body temperature of endotherms/homeotherms only requires one metabolic isoform to function optimally. Since metabolic genes account for 17% of the human genome, representing a fraction of the number of metabolic genes expressed by ectotherms, this reduction in metabolic enzyme heterogeneity would have contributed to the dramatic decrease in post-Cambrian genomic size.” In other words, natural selection favored functional efficiencies/economies.

  3. 3.

    Over the past few decades the fundamental tenets of neo-Darwinism have been convincingly challenged. It seems that organisms are active participants in shaping the evolutionary process. There is now a paradigm shift under way from an atomistic, reductionist, gene-oriented, mechanistic (robotic) model to a systems perspective in which “purposeful” actions and informational processes are recognized as fundamental properties of living organisms at all levels. In his important book, Evolution: A View from the 21st Century, the leading microbiologist Shapiro (2011, 2009) argues that cells must be viewed as complex systems that control their own growth, reproduction and even shape their own evolution over time. He refers to it as a “systems engineering” perspective. Indeed, there is no discreet DNA unit that fits the neo-Darwinian model of a one-way, deterministic gene. Instead, the DNA in a cell represents a two-way, “read-write system” wherein various “coding sequences” are mobilized, aggregated, manipulated and even modified by other genomic control and regulatory molecules in ways that can influence the course of evolution itself. “We need to develop a new lexicon of terms based on a view of the cell as an active, sentient entity,” Shapiro stresses. Echoing the views of a number of other theorists recently, he calls for “a deep rethinking of basic evolutionary concepts.” Indeed, Shapiro cites some 32 different examples of what he refers to as “natural genetic engineering,” including immune system responses, chromosomal rearrangements, diversity generating retroelements, the actions of mobile genetic elements called transposons, genome restructuring, whole genome duplication, and symbiotic DNA integration. As Shapiro emphasizes, "The capacity of living organisms to alter their own heredity is undeniable. Our current ideas about evolution have to incorporate this basic fact of life."

    The well-known senior physiologist Noble (2012, 2013), in a recent paper, argues that all the basic assumptions underlying the Modern Synthesis and neo-Darwinism have been proven wrong. Specifically, (1) genetic changes are often very far from random and in many cases are directed by “epigenetic” (developmental) and environmental influences; (2) genetic changes are often not gradual and incremental (Noble cites, among other things, the radical effects of DNA transposons, which have been found in more than two-thirds of the human genome); (3) an accumulation of evidence for a Lamarckian inheritance of epigenetic influences that has now reached the flood stage; and (4) natural selection, rather than being gene focused, is in fact a complex multi-leveled process with many different levels and categories of causation. Woese and Goldenfeld (2009) in their critique of the modern synthesis characterize life as a “collective phenomenon.” And evolutionary theorist Eva Jablonka and her colleagues (Jablonka et al. 1998; Jablonka and Raz 2009; Jablonka and Lamb 2014) identify four distinct “Lamarckian” modes of inheritance: (1) directed adaptive mutations, (2) the inheritance of characters acquired during development and the lifetime of the individual, (3) behavioral inheritance through social learning, and (4) language-based information transmission. It could be called the extended genome. In a recent review of the mounting evidence for this Lamarckian view, Jablonka (2013) concludes: “The existing knowledge of epigenetic systems leaves little doubt that non-genetic information can be transmitted through the germ line to the next generation, and that internal and external conditions influence what is transmitted and for how long.” The developmental biologist West-Eberhard (2003) goes even further: “Genes are followers, not leaders, in adaptive evolution.”

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Corning, P.A. (2018). Synergy and the Bioeconomics of Complexity. In: Morales, A., Gershenson, C., Braha, D., Minai, A., Bar-Yam, Y. (eds) Unifying Themes in Complex Systems IX. ICCS 2018. Springer Proceedings in Complexity. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-96661-8_2

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